Manager has a responsibility to “tell it straight” anything less shortchanges employee

Dear Joan:

Help!  I manage a small office of professionals and administrative support staff.  I am repeatedly running into the following situation:   

One of the professionals will engage his support person for administrative help on a project – a detailed report, a complicated spreadsheet, a marketing project, a presentation, etc.  The administrative person will complete the project. Then the professional will find mistakes, errors, omissions, or other errors on the project.  “It is horrible – all wrong!”  The professional will sit and stew about it, and redo the entire project himself.   “I have to do everything myself!”  

Two weeks later, the professional will come into my office and complain about the incompetence of the administrative person.  “Don’t say anything to her, but she can’t get anything right!”  

I know this is a classic case of conflict avoidance, however, it is creating a nightmarish circle:  The administrative person doesn’t know she’s done anything wrong on the project, so the next time she’s given a project, she will proceed in exactly the same manner, following the instructions given to her, and possibly making more mistakes.   

If the professional person would have the integrity (actually, the nerve) to immediately talk about it with the administrative person, and have the administrative person correct it (no matter whose “fault” it is that the project turned out wrong), the administrative person would learn to ask a lot more questions up front on future projects, and the professional person would recognize where communications are breaking down.  

Why can’t I convince the professionals that it is in their best interest to communicate with the administrative person immediately when there is a problem with the results of their project? 

Answer:

Your problem is so common there is a name for it: triangulation. Instead of going straight to the person with the feedback, he comes to you and creates the triangle.  Here is an alternative approach to your conversations. 

Let’s call the professional Jack and his administrative assistant Sue. 

Jack: “Don’t tell Sue, but she can’t get anything right!” 

You: “You’ve come to me several times about Sue and each time you say you haven’t given her any direct feedback. You tell me but then you say I can’t tell her. Do you think that’s fair to Sue? Would you want people to withhold your mistakes from you?” 

Jack: “But I have to work with her and I don’t want her to cop an attitude. I don’t want tension between us.” 

You: “There is already tension because you aren’t happy with her work. If you don’t tell her you are setting her up. She can’t correct something she doesn’t know is wrong. If you tell her in a calm voice and simply point out how you want it to be done differently I’m sure she’ll redo it. If you don’t blame her she shouldn’t overreact.” 

Jack: “I’d rather do it myself.” 

You: “I don’t think that is an acceptable solution. It makes you less productive and it’s not what you’re paid to do. I don’t want you taking back her work and redoing it any more. I’d like you to have a conversation with her by Friday. Simply explain what you want her to do differently and commit to her that you will tell her if she is off track immediately from now on. Also, if she keeps making errors there is a good chance you aren’t spending enough time on the front end clarifying expectations and answering her questions, so why don’t you agree to build that discussion into future delegated assignments? If she still doesn’t improve after that, you and I will put her on a performance plan, with clear expectations, and we will monitor her performance. If she doesn’t improve, in spite of you giving her feedback and coaching, we may end up letting her go.” 

Jack: “I don’t want to do this. I want you to talk to her.” 

You: “What can I say to her? ‘A person I can’t name has complained about your work? I can’t give you any examples because then you would know who isn’t happy with you?’ Even if I did tell her you complained, won’t she wonder why you had to get me involved? Won’t she be hurt or even angry that you didn’t come to her yourself? You can’t be sure she is incompetent unless you tell her what to fix and see if she can do it.” 

Jack: “I don’t know how to say it without hurting her feelings.” 

You: “Ok. Let’s role play First I’ll play your role and you play Sue. Then let’s switch roles and you can practice what you will say. I find practicing something like this out loud really helps.”

After role playing, you say, “Why don’t you jot down some key words and points, so you remember them? I’d like you to have this conversation while it is still fresh. How about today? Then I’d like you to come and see me and tell me how it went.”  

If Jack doesn’t come back and report on how it went, ask him during your next meeting with him. If he hasn’t done it, tell him you are holding him accountable for following through on this and it’s a part of his own development. If he still doesn’t act on it and comes in again to complain, tell him you are going to bring her into the meeting and he is going to tell her with you in the room.  

If this problem persists and he continues to take back his own work, the problem is Jack, not Sue. If it is affecting his productivity, it should affect his performance review and his raise. 

Triangulation sucks time and productivity out of an organization. This approach should create a healthier environment and spur growth for both Jack and Sue.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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